I need to see it to solve it…. NOT TRUE!  
Online Collaboration between The Confluencers, Winam Grassroots and Polycom Development
Written by Anna B. Sabhaney
Working across India, the UK and Africa, I have been receiving questions about how easy it is to work across locations remotely, and this appears to come up in debates a lot. I have noticed an underlying assumption that you need to see and experience things in person in order to be able to understand them and work to solve them. 

Do you need to see it to fix it? No you don’t. Yes it is fun inspiring and stimulating to experience things first hand but it is not necessary. And when funding for expensive consultant travel and accommodation starts to be a showstopper for projects happening it is important to start questioning whether we haven't gotten our priorities muddled up.

In fact, the model of consultants travelling and implementing projects with local partners and then walking away and needing to plan for transitioning, is sometimes counterproductive and deprives local partners from critical learning they would otherwise experience were they leading the projects from Day 1.

What is true is that for long distance collaboration to work it takes time to build trust, adoption of new technology and a more flexible approach to what the “best” way of running a project should be.

I thought I would illustrate my point through a brilliant collaboration The Confluencers has recently been involved in working with Jane Anyango from Polycom Development and Mary Were from Winam Grass Roots women in Kenya.

The three of us meet at the World Urban Forum in February 2018 in Kuala Lumpur and were united by a desire to co-create a project that was truly grassroot led. We decided to focus on the problem of urban-rural migration in Kisumu. We didn't just see it as a business case to draw in funding but a learning opportunity for all three organisations and an opportunity to scout for programmes and business that could be embedded in solving this problem in the long term.

Mary Were, describes some of the challenges in the video below. In 8 months and 200 women days we have: Conducted baseline research and area prioritisation for intervention ; Developed a baseline survey which was conducted in 100 households which included training of field staff; Adopted +Acumens Systems Practice approach to develop a systems map of the various problems and concerns and more importantly how they were linked; Workshopped problem solving sessions to identify different opportunities and levers; Developed short and long term change theories; Are finalising a business case proposal for funding; Built a long last relationship that will thrive and enable our organisations to support each other for years to come. 
We did this without spending a cent on travel. So what were some of the challenges and how did we tackle them? 

The first challenge was coming up with a way of working and protocol that suited all our different ways of working, schedules,time prioritisation, time zones, information storage platforms. By setting up a BIM naming convention and filing system on GoogleDocs, we were able to manage information (such as GIS opensource data) in line with international best practice and ensure the whole team had live access and could contribute to all documents. We held weekly web-meetings on Zoom. To minimise the communication paperwork and emails, without compromising on quality of communication, we recorded our meetings, and used Slack and Whattsup for daily correspondence. This saved us time which we spent on actually doing more work.

Simulation of workshops - one of the main challenges of working long distance is the risk of missing out on the innovative team brainstorming and idea sharing that is so critical to multidisciplinary projects. We recreated this remotely by using Realtime Board and Zoom screen-sharing to jointly edit and amend our working system and theory of change.

Keeping motivated - as with all projects, especially when you don't have the positive feedback of meeting and doing workshops in person, motivation can dwindle. To avoid this we created interim milestones every 1-2 months and took time to review our lessons learnt, aspirations and progress every month and also celebrate our successes. This also helped maintain an honest relationship and make sure that the timescales were challenging but also achievable for all parties and respectful of other commitments.

Making the best out of local knowledge - usually workshops and field visits give everyone in the team a common understanding of key problems first hand. I relied only on my local partners to capture that information and report back. This required a joint agreement on what information needed collecting and how we would measure quality. It also meant that Mary and Jane had to work harder to explain how things worked and what the challenges on the ground were. We did this by co-creating, piloting and refining a community survey. This process actually enabled us to uncover truths that might have otherwise not been discussed. It also meant that Mary and Jane as local experts really took the lead in investigating their own context, liaising with stakeholders and representing the project team at international gatherings like the Urban Thinkers Campus. The benefit was also that their input provided the project with an immediate sounding board for testing the appropriateness of different ideas, solutions or methodologies proposed.

Overall what I enjoyed most about this collaboration is that I got to see the local challenges through the eyes of local experts and navigate with them through a prioritisation process to distill the best solutions - not just for their beneficiaries, but for their own organisations. Speaking on behalf of the team I believe all three organisations learnt and broadened their planning, impact assessment and communication skills through the process.

The final project business case is now being formulated and is ready to receive funding so don't hesitate to get in touch with the team if you want more info! anna@theconfluencers.com; janewakibera@gmail.com; 

Anna B. Sabhaney

I help non-profit Founders and CEOs to get funders and stakeholders listening
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